The acquisition of Newcastle United by a Saudi-led consortium has sparked much debate. Aaron Cutler asks whether it should have been allowed to happen.
“I don’t care what anybody says, it’s a special football club. It’s not like any other club.”
The words of Kevin Keegan, describing not Liverpool but Newcastle, his ‘other’ great love.
The legendary striker turned manager has a point. Or rather he did, right up until two weeks ago when another footballing institution succumbed to state ownership.
The Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle has revealed, once and for all, that football is a lie.
Some of the fiercest critics of the doomed Super League have acquiesced to this buyout with alarming speed, despite the many horrors that underpin it.
Who said club loyalty wasn’t blinding?
Anyone with a shred of morality and objectivity, however, must now be asking what this means for the future of the sport. Be in no doubt, that question will be uppermost in the thoughts of everyone at Liverpool FC.
A new Newcastle
The spectre of a Newcastle takeover has loomed large for several years.
The despised Mike Ashley put the club up for sale as long ago as 2009, only to price himself out of a deal for the best part of a decade.
When the shady but persistent Amanda Stavely approached him to broker a deal on behalf of the Saudi Crown Prince, the retail entrepreneur thought he’d struck gold. That was until the Premier League’s ‘Fit and Proper Person Test’ scuppered the deal. For a time, anyway.
Court action was duly threatened and an arbitration date set for January of next year. That will no longer be required as – to the astonishment of onlookers – the deadlock was suddenly and unexpectedly broken this month.
Now several clubs, not to mention their supporters, are demanding to know why.
The official version is the Premier League were given assurances that the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIP), responsible for an 80 percent stake in the new consortium, is separate to the Saudi state itself.
The more likely explanation is the lifting of a four-and half-year ban on beIN sports in Saudi Arabia. The Premier League’s Middle Eastern broadcaster of choice, this was damaging commercial interests.
Both issues paint those at the top of English football in a terrible light.
Firstly, the chair of the PIF is none other than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. How then can it be separate to the state?
As for the TV deal… to cite that as the major sticking point smacks of greed and self-interest.
Evidently, the fit and proper test – or the Owners and Directors Test as its also known – is not fit for purpose. And we must assume it does not to factor in ethics.
For Newcastle is now a vehicle for sport-washing of the worst kind.
It has been largely accepted the football club will be used to distract from appalling human rights abuses.
State-sponsored misogyny, the oppression of LGBT rights and mass executions are a part of everyday life in Saudi Arabia.
The sheer brutality of the regime was demonstrated in the horrific slaying of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
An ardent critic of those ruling his homeland, he was led to an embassy in Istanbul where his body was dismembered and placed into plastic bags. All, allegedly, at the behest of Newcastle’s newest investor.
The attempts of some Magpies to gloss over or even excuse such heinous crimes is frankly shocking.
A growing number point to Britain’s decision to sell arms to the Saudis – which are in turn used against Yemen – as some kind of justification for the deal. As if the British government are a beacon for all that’s good…
Indeed, not for the first time, they have failed in their duty here too.
Rather than protect the sport from such figures, the Conservative party have allowed their blood money to seep into the country and the game it gave to the world.
A poster proclaiming "Jamal Khashoggi murdered 2.10.18" is driven around Newcastle's stadium ahead of their first game under Saudi Arabian ownership, as a segment of fanbase arrive wearing keffiyehs. A day on which Football stares into the Abyss pic.twitter.com/IJDxWdSf3v
— roger bennett (@rogbennett) October 17, 2021
Leaked documents from 2020 reveal the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport had signalled their ‘support’ for the Saudi consortium from the off. Commercial interests again coming to the fore, not to mention Tory morals.
Nobody was begrudging Newcastle fans a new dawn. They have endured 14 years of mediocrity under an imposter who bankrupted the club of any hope or ambition.
Seeing one of the country’s great sporting arenas hijacked as a means to promote Sports Direct, and cheapened in the process, was galling.
But swapping a tormentor for a tyrant is not the answer.
They’re not the first but Newcastle’s takeover may prove a turning point for football in this country. Now the richest club in the world, they will inevitably ascend to the top of the Premier League.
This may take two, three or even five years but it will happen, as it did with Chelsea and Manchester City before them.
The result is a shifting of tectonic plates and a changing landscape that could well exclude historical clubs, including not just Liverpool but the likes of Arsenal, Everton, Spurs and Aston Villa, from the top table.
How then do these teams remain competitive longer term?
One way is to lure a world-class manager in the vein of Jurgen Klopp and build a team both organically and strategically. But a Klopp and indeed Michael Edwards are few and far between.
It’s harder to be the cleverest people in the room if your rivals have the means of outsmarting and outspending you.
The sad reality is the only way back to the summit for such clubs could eventually be in the form of their own imperfect takeovers.
The best barometer of sports-washing in football is the sudden, dramatic & vehement defence of putrid human-rights abusing regimes who've just bought football clubs supported by those suddenly defending those regimes. When before, they had zero view.
— Nick Harris (@sportingintel) October 11, 2021
Which begs the question of whether football is at the point of no return?
Yes, Kopites want Liverpool to conquer the footballing world, but would it mean quite so much if that was bankrolled by an oil state? We are the socialist club after all, built in Shankly’s image. The great man would be repulsed at this current behemoth.
For the sport is slowly eating itself. The working-class game has become little more than a plaything for billionaires.
While regrettable in itself, the real tragedy will be when punters grow disillusioned and abandon their passion, at least at the top level.
The lower leagues and indeed non-league football will become more relatable and more appealing. If they haven’t already.
Recent events though will surely prompt a re-think on the part of Fenway Sports Group. They acquired Liverpool in the belief that Financial Fair Play would rein in the likes of Manchester City. Experience has revealed how utterly ineffective those parameters can be.
Now they have another adversary – worth nearly eleven times more than Sheikh Mansour – to contend with. Do they have the stomach and/or financial clout to go again?
While admirable and logical, FSG’s commitment to have Liverpool live within their means could soon result in us falling behind. Certainly, Newcastle’s owners would not be dithering over Mo Salah’s contract renewal…
Whatever you think of their approach – and opinions are clearly divided – they have overseen the assembly of a winning squad, led by a winning manager. But don’t be surprised if his departure now coincides with their own.
While many will rejoice at that, we should be careful what we wish for.